History Professor Juliet E.K. Walker knows first-hand the power of a book to shape history.
Earlier this year, the site of New Philadelphia, Ill., a town founded in 1836 by her great-great grandfather Frank McWorter, was named a National Historic Landmark, based on research she published in “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” (1983, 1995).
In the book, Walker documented the historic significance of McWorter’s life and New Philadelphia, which is the first known town platted and officially registered by an African American before the Civil War.
“The search for the reality of a usable African American historic past, as well as assessments that provide insight on the contemporary black experience often propel my book selection,” Walker says.
“As an historian, a continuous search for understanding the slave experience from the perspective of the slave drives my interest in biographies, which often provide a more incisive analysis and greater insight than general historic assessments.”
Here’s what the scholar had to say about the books currently on her nightstand:
The distinguished history professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, “The Hemingses of Monticello” traces the origins of the Hemings, a slave family from 17th-century Virginia, to their sale after the death of their owner, the nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed also describes the 38-year liaison between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings, and her seven children. In part, DNA tests corroborate paternity, previously established by the historical record.
An exciting read and a comprehensive brilliantly researched book that moves the enslaved to the forefront of their lives and experiences, as opposed to being relegated as appendages of history.
Baker’s expansive and informative “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation,” reviews the lives of the author’s enslaved ancestors and some 274 other African Americans who were also enslaved over time on the nation’s largest tobacco plantation. Located near Nashville, Tenn., the plantation was established by a distant relative of the first American President.
Unlike Alex Haley’s path-breaking “Roots,” based on his family’s oral history, Baker’s 30 years of research in the reconstruction of this community of slaves was based not only on oral history interviews from descendants of both the enslaved and the enslaver, but also on documents including private papers and public records. in addition to assessments from DNA tests results.
While both Gordon-Reed and Baker’s books move us away from the general amorphous reconstruction of slave life, we must be reminded of the historical reality of the institution in John Hope Franklin’s “The Militant South,” in which he describes the extent to which the enslaved were oppressed in a section of the United States which he described as a “virtual armed camp.”
With American army bases located in the South given constitutional sanction to put down slave rebellions, in addition to state militias, county patrols and municipal police, as well as armed white citizens who could suppress slave intransigence with impunity, “The Militant South” underscores the extent to which there were not too many people of African descent who did not offer challenges to their enslavement.
The violence of African American oppression did not end with the Civil War as African American Professor Giddings reminds us in her highly acclaimed biography “Ida, a Sword Among Lions.”
Ida B. Wells is an iconic historic figure, whose life weaves in and out of black activism at the turn of the 20th century. One of America’s first woman investigative journalists, Giddings’ brilliant assessment provides another dimension of the diversity of historic responses of African American women in their search for African American freedom and equality.
By the turn of the 21st century, African American women in journalism had moved into the media mainstream where their assessments now include broad issues in American life, including the recently published “The Breakthrough” by Gwen Ifill, a nationally known newspaper and broadcast journalist. In the book, Ifill’s focus is on a new generation of black political leaders.
While only a 19-page chapter focuses on President Barack Obama, 179 of the book’s 266 pages include information on the new president, as he exemplified various aspects of the new generation of post-Civil Rights era African-American politicians. Based primarily on interviews, the book’s contribution is its synthesis of this new generation and the strategies developed as they skillfully negotiate the nation’s new political arena.
Still, waiting to be read are “A Mercy” (2008), by Toni Morrison, a novel set in the 17th century on the experience of women of various races and class on a Maryland plantation, as well as James Patterson’s novel “Cross County” (2008), where the protagonist is a black psychologist and detective.
Walker is the founder and director of the Center for Black Business History at the university. Her other books include “The History of Black Business in America” and “Encyclopedia of African American Business History.” She currently is writing a book about Oprah Winfrey, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press.